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Branding a cross-border mentality

The Dutch province of Limburg has a notable history. In its capital city, Maastricht, the treaty that created the European Union was signed back in 1992.

Limburg is also home to the laboratory that invented the world’s first synthetic hamburger, and the mountainous smugglers’ maze that helped saved valuable Dutch artwork from the Nazis during the Second World War.

As well, Limburg is famous for its cross-border mentality. This comes from the province’s unique location, snuggled in-between Belgium and Germany. In fact, when I entered Limburg, my flight from Istanbul landed at Düsseldorf airport. I then travelled by road all the way from Germany into the Netherlands (which really isn’t very far).

But it illustrates how closely overlapping these border regions are. Many Limburgians speak French and German as well as their native Dutch, and often travel between the three countries for shopping, work and leisure. Some Limburgians even say that they feel more in common with the neighbouring countries than with fellow Dutch in the Hague or in Amsterdam.

While staying in Limburg, I talked with a wide range of people, including local businessmen, museum managers, the mayor of Maastricht, and the governor of Limburg. I also spent time with the people at Connect Limburg, talking about their long-term place branding strategy for the province and their goals for the next ten years.

Robert Govers, who helped devise the initial Limburg place branding strategy, told me that it was fairly straightforward to reach agreement with all stakeholders on how the Limburg brand should look. Stakeholders were convinced that ‘crossing borders’ forms a core part of the Limburg DNA and that it was vital to include this in the strategy.

Usually, it takes much time and juggling to get all stakeholders on board with a new place branding strategy. But in Limburg’s case, the identity was already so strong that few people needed to question it.

Conny Moonen, head of Connect Limburg, reinforced this point when she told me that, in Limburg, most people see borders not as obstacles, but as interfaces.

She said: “We want to focus on creating options, being open-minded, and connecting across borders. We hope that Limburg will become a benchmark for how countries should interact across borders.

“In ten years time I’d like to see Limburg known as the ‘heartbeat of Europe’ – the place where it all began.”

There’s a lot more to say about Limburg, but for now I’d like to point you in the direction of two published pieces I wrote for the UK press. In the first, for City Nation Place, I explore the overall Limburg place branding approach in more detail, including my interviews with key figures in the province.

The second piece, for City Metric, highlights Maastricht and its attempts to create a distinctive identity within the umbrella of Limburg’s cross-border mentality.

brand morocco

Building ‘Brand Morocco’

Malcolm Allan discusses a recent conference on building Brand Morocco

By Malcolm Allan

On 27 May in Casablanca, the Ministry of Industry, Trade, Investment and the Digital Economy of the Kingdom of Morocco, Maroc Export and the Amadeus Institute held the first annual conference on developing a strategy for Brand Morocco.

As MD of Placematters, I was invited to contribute to the discussion. Specifically, I was asked to talk about how a national brand can raise awareness of the country’s products for export. I also explored how country of origin products can raise awareness of the national brand. Here are the high points of the conference discussion, along with my perspectives.

Opening up the discussion on building Marque Maroc to an audience of key domestic stakeholders and foreign interests – investors, manufacturers, tourism bodies and brand practitioners like myself, was a brave move from the Moroccan government. They were happy to invite comment, criticism and ideas for further brand development. This is an innovative approach in comparison to the UK, which has no formal brand strategy and no ongoing public conversation on what a UK brand strategy might look like.

We heard from 27 contributors in four ‘conversation sessions’, where four or five commentators discussed a key topic guided by a moderator. This format proved informative and democratic with no one dominating the discussion, everyone having their say and building on each other’s points in a positive way.

The four sessions focused on:
1. How to build the “Made in Morocco” label to promote the Kingdom as a modern democracy and also to promote its contribution to global prosperity, particularly its initiatives to support the development of other countries in the African continent
2. How might “Soft Power” contribute to the development and growth of the country’s intellectual capital?
3. How might the development of Marque Maroc be a catalyst for Africa’s nation branding?
4. What are new opportunities to develop and promote Morocco’s nation branding?

Discussion on the first topic identified the importance of Moroccans’ modelling the values of their national brand through actions and behaviours, especially when involved in outreach activity such as cultural visits, trade promotion tours, selling exports of Moroccan goods and services, and studying in foreign countries. These are all activities where Moroccans can be ambassadors for their national brand. The emergence of Morocco as a responsive modern democracy was cited many times as a key factor for changing public opinion and awareness outside the country about its positive progress, and a very positive context for other brand initiatives.

When addressing the second topic, the conversation highlighted Morocco’s developing reputation as an exporter of creative ideas, creative and innovative people to other African countries and its increasing role as a location where students from other countries in the continent come to study. Making a positive contribution to African development was cited numerous times during the day as a key objective of the national brand. Moroccans are very proud of this objective.

Morocco reflected its focus on soft power as a core vehicle for deploying the national brand by hosting the forthcoming global climate change conference later this year, an issue that the country takes very seriously as part of its brand development strategy. This event provided an opportunity to showcase many offers from Marque Maroc to the visiting government delegations over the eleven days of the conference.

On the third theme, delegates highlighted the opportunity for Morocco to share its experience with other African countries in addressing the many challenges it had faced to date in developing its national brand development strategy. These included raising awareness of Morocco’s development as a modern manufacturing and digital economy, raising awareness of its commitment to higher standards in educational provision and attainment and its commitment to democratic government in a modern monarchy.

Conversationalists identified a number of initiatives which should be developed to develop the national brand, the fourth of the themes. These included the need for greater ambition as a country, the need to expand Morocco’s role in the development of sub-Saharan Africa, the opportunity to model effective national brand development and increased sharing of brand Morocco’s development intelligence and know-how.

The conference was a bold move from the various central government ministries involved in developing the national brand. It acted as a vehicle for thoughtful conversation on:
1. Widening involvement from the private sector and bodies representing civic sectors in the brand Morocco development process
2. Critiquing brand development to date
3. Inviting ideas for developing initiatives that would exemplify brand Morocco
4. Being much more focussed in the marketing of the country’s core and image defining brand offers and the selection of key external target market audiences for those offers

At the end of the conference the mood was buoyant. Delegates were discussing how they might contribute to national brand development, how Morocco needs to be more ambitious in its development and its contribution to the rest of the world, and how to further harness the energy and creativity of its people as ambassadors for brand Morocco.

From a personal perspective I was left with a mix of reactions and emotions. I was delighted to have been asked to contribute to the conversation and impressed by the energy placed on harnessing the talents of this nation. At the same time, I felt depressed that my own country, the UK, is failing to develop its own national brand strategy to promote the creative talents of its people in the positive way that Morocco is doing, preferring an advertising campaign on how ‘great’ it is to one that focuses on its contribution to the rest of the world.

Eduardo Oliveira

Place branding in strategic spatial planning: New research

Eduardo Oliveira

Placesbrands is delighted to announce the publication of an important piece of doctoral research, which we’ve been eagerly following since this site’s inception in 2012.

Dr Eduardo Oliveira, Placesbrands deputy editor and resident expert, has just published his PhD thesis, exploring the role of place branding in strategic spatial planning.

Firstly, congratulations Eduardo! Here’s the brief on the thesis.

The research focuses on bringing together place branding and the strategic spatial planning approach, specifically at the regional scale. It critically scrutinises the actual or potential roles of place branding as an instrument for reaching strategic spatial planning goals. This discussion is currently gaining momentum at a time when the application of branding techniques and principles to places is firmly on the agendas of local and regional governments.

Place branding has also become an increasingly appealing topic for academic research. The theoretical assumption offered in this thesis is that place branding could and perhaps should be integrated into strategic spatial planning, independent of the geographical scale of application and whether the place branding initiatives are novel or a re-branding exercise. This thesis investigates the empirical significance of a regional branding strategy for northern Portugal, integrated into wider strategic spatial planning, and its ability to overcome the entrenched regional, economic and social difficulties and imbalances.

To achieve this aim, a qualitative methodology is used, specifically involving content analysis of strategic spatial plans, development plans, strategic initiatives, and online traveller-generated content. Sixteen regional stakeholders are also interviewed. By drawing the attention of readers – academics, practitioners, policy makers and spatial planners – to place branding as a strategic spatial planning instrument, this thesis contributes to the theoretical underpinnings of place branding, helping to make it more effective, efficient, and socially and environmentally responsible.

Read the entire thesis on open access at the University of Groningen.

Eduardo can be reached on Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Kostroma place branding

Branding the Golden Ring: Case Study of Kostroma, Russia

Kostroma place branding

Now that destination branding has become popular worldwide, Russia is trying to catch up. However, the whole thing is seen by many as yet another way of money laundering and/or budget wasting. Russians are traditionally pretty pessimistic about most things that promise time-delayed results. They think their lives are likely to change drastically by then, so why bother?

The place branding industry has just started taking shape in Russia. Those involved in the field are mainly specialists in design and company branding, with an additional sprinkling of passionate amateurs. The main issue they face is strategy building for a destination. According to experts, in order to truly have a strategy and follow it, a city should rely on government, business, or the local community – ideally all three.

But in Russia, city branding is mainly initiated and supported by local governments. On one hand, this ensures necessary budgeting and coverage. On the other hand, though, governors often use city branding to their own political and business advantage, and once the regional head is gone, the branding process is discontinued – or slammed and U- turned by his successor. That said, city managers rarely engage specialists to work out long-term strategies as they need results to be seen (or rather shown off) while they are still in office. The measures they take are often bold, costly yet pointless, such as reviving an airport no-one uses, or trying to drive culture in a region with a programme that includes closing 200 libraries and 300 leisure centres.

Examples of businesspeople who encourage city branding are rarely found in Russia because the branding process requires tight cooperation between competitors, and a feeling of stability; while today, businesses hardly perceive themselves as a community and just try to survive. It’s every company for itself. Several places in Russia have movers and shakers that invest time and money into destination branding just for the love of the city. These people often work bottom-up and start by engaging locals into discussions on what makes their hometown unique and what should be done to highlight it.

This is a slow process as people often appear skeptical and reluctant. If you start a topic at a city forum and tell people you are writing a city guide, the first response will probably be, “You do this rubbish out of boredom – better start a family or, if you won’t, then write about poverty and drinking issues”. However, persistent attempts have proven successful in some regions – yet even there, measures are isolated and mainly driven by the efforts of individuals.

As a result, most destinations in this huge country are still largely unknown outside their immediate vicinities, and cannot benefit from the immense potential many of them have. 

Kostroma is an ancient Russian town included in Russia’s Golden Ring, a tourist route first introduced in the 1960s. Back in Soviet times, Kostroma attracted numerous visitors as internal tourism was the only option available for USSR citizens.

The city had no need to attract people in any special way, and the infrastructure was limited and low-quality. Still, when the Iron Curtain came down, people discovered places such as Turkey and Egypt that had better facilities, warmer climates, exotic sightseeing and even lower prices due to market competition.

Russia’s Golden Ring towns developed a reputation of being outdated, overpriced, comfortless ruins only suitable for low-income seniors. Meanwhile, SMB started to develop as the economy turned to capitalism, and little yet comfortable hotels and restaurants opened in Kostroma, transforming the place into a nice surprise for visitors.

Local farmers tried to capitalise on the Soviet-time fame of local cheeses and beef, and even discovered marble meat in Kostroma-bred cows. Russian Orthodox Church supported restoration of the old churches and turned local monasteries into blossoming gardens.

As a result of the recent economic recession and following the events of the Arab Spring, some Russians turned back to internal tourism and were happy to find proper infrastructure in Kostroma. Nowadays, the tourist traffic in the town is slowly growing year on year. But still, the town faces a number of problems.

The previous Governor of the Kostroma Region was a typical attention-seeker who initiated film festivals and Faberge exhibitions in Kostroma but left the economy exhausted and aggravated many problems. Branding-wise, he introduced a logo and a slogan that were lame and obviously imitated those of Putin’s party the Governor tried to please.

The current Governor now tries to make up for all the problems at once and chooses to restrict any culture-oriented costs. Thus, the town had hardly any celebrations planned for the Romanov Dynasty 400th Jubilee in 2013, an event that Kostroma played an important role in, and that could bring IMMENSE tourist traffic to the town. This swinging approach does absolutely no good to a town that is very rich in historical heritage.

It is clear that Kostroma lacks the necessary vision of the city brand. It also lacks local support, as the Governors’ policy is so misleading and the visitors do not directly influence the lives of many local people. The city’s businesses struggle all on their own but receive no support from the community or authorities.

This spotty, sketchy approach is well illustrated by public transport stops in the city centre that feature posters divided in 16 squares called ‘Our Touristic Brands’. The ‘brands’ are pictures of different sights in Kostroma and region, chosen with no logic or order. Some of those have good coverage and access while others are neglected.

Here are several suggestions for proper Kostroma branding.

1. Kostroma’s roads perfectly match the famous saying, Russia has two problems, roads and fools. To encourage individual tourism, motorways, railroads, and region-wide helicopter routes must be optimised, developed, and well cared for. The region is pretty big (about a Switzerland and a half) and covered in thick undisturbed forests where little beautiful towns are scattered, some of them about 900 years old. All the towns (that the region can also benefit a lot from) need to be easily accessed from Kostroma and surrounding regions despite the swampy soils and tight freeze-thaw conditions. Kostroma stands on the Volga, and water tourism infrastructure should be seen as a priority.

2. The government should not merely rely on SMB but should support it by maintaining stability within the region and initiating new tourism projects while keeping an eye on monopolies arising. This would bring more logic to tourism evolving throughout the region.

3. A balance should be kept between old and new, local and global, public and commercial. Today, we see projects to transform unique 18th century shopping arcades into ultramodern malls, which include total restructuring of the place and destruction of most of the actual buildings. This is unacceptable and frightening. Instead, we should make good use of the old constructions, but only together with archaeologists and historians. The town’s cosy, relaxed, 19th century atmosphere should be preserved by all means.

4. A committee should be formed to work out a long-term strategy for the town branding, featuring all stakeholders, e.g. government, local community (bloggers and other opinion leaders), hospitality, museum professionals, environmentalists, and industry. Tourism is not the only thing that can interest visitors. Kostroma has the largest college-per-person ratio in Russia, a strong cultural background, and industrial legacy/potential.

5. A customer-oriented approach should be encouraged in the hospitality industry as well in the whole of city management. The system of public transport is leftover from Soviet times and is not efficient enough today, meaning many hotels, sights, and museums are tricky to reach. Hotels, however warm in greeting guests, do not have free-of-charge town maps and are not proactive in offering extra services like excursions, shops, or places to eat. Best practices and international standards should be promoted, and training sessions should be held. The town should be as comfortable and inspirational for both citizens and visitors as possible.

6. Awareness of Kostroma should be promoted in Russia and internationally, using a tight-knit vision, SMART goals, and clearly defined identity. Kostroma is a town that Russia should be proud of!


By Oksana Klyuchinskaya

Cross-border advantage

photo credit: Europe via photopin (license)
photo credit: Europe via photopin (license)

Limburg’s long-term goal is to become well known as a cross-border province. Connect Limburg, the organisation responsible for implementing brand strategy for the Dutch province, has the important task of making sure that all stakeholders are engaged with the strategy and willing to support it as it unfolds.

Having widespread buy-in is vital for success, because a good place branding strategy depends largely on having all stakeholders of the place working together towards the defined goals. Local business people play an important part in this. But it’s not always easy to get them on board.

Robert Govers, who worked on the Limburg strategy, said: “Most of the time private sector players find it very hard to understand how this [place brand] helps them to improve their business.

“In their day-to-day jobs they are mainly focused on selling products or services to consumers. They say things like ‘borders are irrelevant for us, how can they help us to sell our products?’”

This could present a significant challenge for Limburg. Nevertheless, some of the province’s most important firms are already convinced. When I visited Limburg in April, I spoke with two prominent local businessmen who support the cross-border mentality and actively leverage it in their business approach.

The first person I met was Jo Cox, director of Smurfit Kappa Roermond Papier, part of the Smurfit Kappa Group. The Limburg-based mill is one of the largest in Europe and boasts strong output growth and performance. The Smurfit Kappa group prides itself on its sustainable approach to manufacturing and the Roermond Papier mill, managed by Cox, recently won an award for Bio Strategy of the Year.

Cox said: “For a big business like this, it’s important that we have no variations in currency. Also, Germany is a very strong economy, as we all know, and so we can take the opportunities it offers. All markets are accessible from here. We deliver to France, the UK, Poland, and so on. We also have good water connections, not just motorways. Our transportation costs are low. We’re the best in class regarding transport costs, because of our superb location.”

“There are 26 million people within a small radius of here [Roermond] so that’s very important. But it’s also extremely important that we have the right work ethos. We have really good people in this area. At the end of the day, it’s all about the motivation of the people,” he continued.

Paper manufacturing is not the only industry that can benefit from a cross-border location. It makes sense that Limburg’s unique geography would be highly beneficial to a company specialising in international transportation and logistics.

Seacon Logistics is headquartered in the Limburgian town and logistical hotspot of Venlo, where it has been operating since 1985. It is now the biggest company in North Limburg.

The company has a presence in over 75 countries and uses a multi-modal approach including land, rail and sea transportation methods. Seacon Logistics understands the power of leveraging the cross-border mentality, and in doing so has become closely aligned with the wider goals of Connect Limburg.

Corné Geerts, Seacon Logistics managing director, said: “From a logistics perspective, it’s very important to have close cooperation with Germany. Germany has the perfect rail infrastructure, going deep into the hinterland of Europe.”

“Obviously it’s hard for Limburg to compete with Amsterdam, where a lot of companies settle, because it has very good international connections. I don’t think it’s feasible yet for anywhere in Limburg to compete with an international city like Amsterdam,” he continued.

“But looking one step ahead, because real estate prices are so much lower here, Limburg could become an attractive alternative for internationals, not just the Dutch. Amsterdam is so congested and expensive. Often people just want to live somewhere calm and quiet,” said Geerts.